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Trail of Tears

Between 1830 and 1850, Amerindian people were repeatedly made to relocate from their ancestral lands to the so-called reservations. The state forced relocation of 100,000 people, approximately 15,000 died. That human tragedy is now remembered as the trail of tears. What will be the name given to the tragedy that is now being forced on the 40 million people who migrated from their native places, looking for work, and now want to return to their ancestral lands?

As absurdities pile up, the poor pay the price. Around the world, the lock-down was meant to slow the disease, indeed in almost every country of the world, the infections flattened out after imposition of lockdown. The opposite seems to have happened in India. An unplanned lock-down has brought only hardship. While the world took the path of solidarity, India clamped-down on dissent, spread islamophobic and racist fake news (see our special reports), and began to starve its poorest. Now, as the first wide-spread famine of independent India drives the largest exodus since independence, one human tragedy follows another, every day, relentlessly.

As the COVID-19 death toll is being carefully documented around the world, the non-COVID toll is mounting in India. No statistics are kept by the government – and we get perhaps only partial information through the media. A couple of conscientious journalists are chronicling this litany of shame for the future generation, lest we forget.

Dear reader, when you read the lists, do not just focus on numbers, do not forget that each of these entries represent a person, someone like you or me. Someone who had a home to go to, mother and father, brothers and sisters, perhaps wives, husbands, children… remember also that the government has repeatedly denied in courts of justice that this is even happening, that for every death recorded, there are hundreds who have suffered so much that death would have come as relief, that for every suffering image that makes it to the screen, there are thousands more that do not.

In this sea of tears, particularly disturbing are the deaths by starvation. A few have been reported to directly die of hunger (114 according to one report), and many more of exhaustion compounded by lack of food. we may never know the true numbers. But that wide-spread starvation has taken over the land is undeniable – in most states, all you need to do is to step out to see the magnitude of hunger. Images that bring back the collective memory of the terrible Bengal famines unleased by colonial British mismanagement are flooding the internet and newspapers. That was when India was a colony and its riches were diverted to serve the interests of another nation. We ask today, whose interest is being served now? A much quoted thesis of Amartya Sen argues that lack of democracy leads to famine, that is why it is shocking to see wide-spread hunger and starvation deaths in world’s largest democracy -not only is dying hungry a terrible way to go, but it is also an indicator of a dying democracy.

In this land, as indeed in life, particularly gruesome fate is often reserved for women: we pay with our sweat to sustain life and with our blood to bring it forth, and we die unsung after a life’s struggle. That is why, dear reader, you must read aloud these names and honour them:

Rafiya Begum, 22

Janeela, 20

Marsat Jan, 29

Shakeela, 25

The lady from Kharpora, 35, whose name is not reported

All these young women died unnecessarily because hospitals failed them at their hour of crisis, when they needed help to bring forth the new life that grew inside them. Rizvana Khatum, 30, would have joined this heart-wrenching list but for her phenomenal grit. After being denied treatment and being instead beaten, she lost her baby, and was made to clean her own blood, but she lived. Brave Rizvana not only survived but is today seeking justice. She has told the world in no uncertain terms what most of us guessed already – that if Shakeela and Rafiya had been called Sita or Geeta, they may have still been alive.

All of us, dear readers, have mothers, and some of us are ourselves mothers. While no one remembers the pain of their own birth, some of us certainly remember the pain of giving birth, the uncertainty, the anxiety. Think back to that agony, dear reader, bring to mind that moment, when a new life is balanced against death and pain – and then imagine, instead of the coddling and care that most of us take for granted at such a moment, imagine receiving rejection and blows. What can be more shameful? If this does not move us, what will? What will make us hang our collective heads in shame?

Dear reader, read aloud also these names: Dhansingh Gond. Nirvesh Singh Gond. Buddharaj Singh Gond. Achchelal Singh. Rabendra Singh Gond. Suresh Singh Kaul. Rajbohram Paras Singh. Dharmendra Singh Gond. Virendra Singh Chainsingh. Pradeep Singh Gond. Santosh Napit. Brijesh Bheyadin. Munimsingh Shivratan Singh. Shridayal Singh. Nemshah Singh. Deepak Singh. Remember also these names – Covid martyrs, crushed to death in Aurangabad by trains they believed were not running, leaving behind a handful of precious rotis on the track, dead because they were too poor to continue life where they were (see also our report: life and lies).

Among the oceans of tears greeted with either deadly silence or violent repression by those in authority, one man, born Ajay Bhist, can claim the dubious distinction of being the cruelest of them all. In spite of close competition from Karnataka which tried to enslave its workers by effectively locking them up (see our special report), and Gujrat, where a deceased patient was dumped outside a hospital and fake ventilators were sold for kickbacks, Bhist’s UP has emerged winner in the litany of shame.

Perhaps the most infamous accident, barring the Aurangabad train massacre, was one involving collision of lorries in UP, each carrying human cargo – migrant labourers – people who lived a dignified life earning their living by hard work. Desperate people, having lost their livelihood, headed home – from Rajasthan to different destinations in Bihar, Jharkhand and further east; met their end in Auraiya, UP. 25 dead, 15 critically injured. Dead and living and their meager belongings, all smothered in fine white lime. The dead remain faceless, nameless. The injured, escaping death narrowly, were made to relive hell on earth. UP decided to send them onwards towards home, in an open truck, injured living and dead together, violating rules of medical jurisprudence. Eventually, after many kilometers under a scorching sun, following pressure from Chief minister of Jharkhand and from opposition leaders, ambulances were provided.

The Uttar Pradesh government has now stopped the entry of labourers on foot or in transport other than state government buses. This has again caused chaos and further hardship. Hardships multiply. Natural disasters do not wait for COVID to go away, but man-made disaster could have been avoided with just a little bit of planning and empathy. Central planning, cooperation between states, simply making sure that people are treated with dignity. As day succeeds day, the gruesome counter keeps counting – innocent lives lost, martyred by the apathy and incompetence of a democratically elected government.

SHAME COUNTER: avoidable Indian deaths under COVID-19 lockdown – 667 on 30/5/2020

This counter of shame can be slowed and stopped – by the people of this land. By compassion and rage. Compassion for suffering compatriots, rage against the inadequacies of the three pillars of our democratic government. Dear readers, do not let a new trail of tears be traced in our times, in our beloved country. Do what you can. If not, history will surely judge us harshly and our collective moral bankruptcy will be exposed by our future children.

Postscript: The trains, so long still, are now running. They are turning into mobile death chambers: people dying of hunger, because trains meander interminably, for days, getting lost, and never stopping anywhere where food is available. Even water has been scarce. We have seen immensely sad images, of a toddler playing with the shroud of his dead mother, a hungry man broken because he could not get milk to his baby starving in the train for days, a nephew who held a dying uncle forded to take his medicine without food… the list is endless. 80 people have died as of 30th May.

Now the ‘godi’-media has started a campaign against journalists who report such misery. A fabricated story is doing the rounds about a famous photograph taken during the Sudan famine. An image of a suffering child that helped raise awareness, ultimately contributing to mitigation of the misery. The allegation is that the Pulitzer-winning photographer who took the photo, of a vulture waiting for the child’s death, left the child to die and later committed suicide out of remorse. The truth, easily found on the internet, is that Carter was an incredibly dedicated and sensitive journalist who killed himself not from remorse but from the trauma of having to confront so much misery. It is typical of ‘godi’-media to malign a brave dead man to serve its own ends.

Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that the solicitor general quoted this in court, to imply that those who document misery are vultures feeding on the victims. Indians must learn to tell for themselves who is a vulture and who is a phoenix. We must find back our hearts and relearn to apply our minds.

Denials in courts of justice:

1. SC denies relief in plea for migrant workers says it cannot run government

2. Centre blames media “fake news” for mass migration during lockdown

3. Government Effort To Restrain Media Coverage Of Pandemic Met With Supreme Court Caution

4. https://twitter.com/barandbench/status/1244890251404832768

5. Migrant Worker Crisis: The Supreme Court Has Abdicated All Responsibility

6. ‘How can we stop migrants from walking’, asks SC as it nixes plea

COVID-19 death toll:

1. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases

2. https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus-india?country=IND

Litany of shame:

1.Google Doc Sheet – Tracking Non-Covid deaths in India

2.Public database of reported deaths that have happened as a result of the lockdown. 

3.New Cases of COVID-19 In World Countries

4.India: Coronavirus Pandemic

Anamika is a freelance journalist from Bangalore, currently living in Paris and can be reached at anamik_2020@protonmail.com

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